Having attended English National Ballet’s Emerging Dancer competition earlier this week, I’ve been mulling over the role of competitions within companies, and more importantly the implications of the results.
In-house competitions between dancers isn’t a new phenomenon: Paris Ópera Ballet have used this method as a means for promotion longer than most other companies have been in existence. When there’s no such prize at stake, a competition just for the sake of it seems pointless. It could be argued that it is a showcase of the young talent within the company ranks, or that it is a safe forum for the dancers to gain experience dancing solos. If the company is willing to have their dancers perform in front of a paying audience, dancing principal and soloist variations, surely they should just use them in actual ballet performances – where they have the support of the rest of the company, and they are delivering a variation in the context it was intended to be delivered, not just against a black back-drop. Many of the dancers that were taking part here have already been exposed to big occasions; Ksenia Ovsyanick and Junor de Souza having made their Giselle debuts 2 years ago.
The fact that the purpose of the competition is a mystery to me isn’t the nagging issue: choosing a winner is a huge endorsement of the victorious dancer, and no matter how many times the judges mention how difficult it was to come to a consensus, singleing a dancer out as the best is a strong statement of how people will look at the company and ballet as a whole.
Yonah Acosta was announced the winner on this occasion (he also won the audience award) for his renditions of Basilio’s variation from Don Quixote and the variation from Diana and Actaeon pas de deux. Not to take anything away from this extremely talented young man – his dancing was exciting and technically proficient – but given that one of the judges, David Wall, prefaced the announcement of the result by saying that dancing isn’t about pyrotechnics, but about baring your soul on stage, completely went against their decision. I’m sure Acosta is no one-trick-pony, but both his solos are famous for their pyrotechnics.
Other dancers gave a much broader account of themselves – showing both classical and contemporary technique. Nancy Osbaldeston stood out for me: although in her Paquita variation she had a slight technical hitch, she exuded regality and a reverence for classicism – this was then balanced out by a jazzy solo, choreographed by herself, which had every step in the book in it, but which didn’t get in the way of it being a vehicle for her ebullient personality. Ovsyanick and Barry Drummond both showed diverse repertoire, delivered with assurance and moments of brilliance.
As an evening of dance, I enjoyed seeing some dancers I hadn’t seen much of previously, and some repertoire which is hard to come by. I did leave feeling short-changed though, as I felt the work of the other dancers went under-credited. Explosive performers like Acosta will always have their place on the stage, but I think if ballet is to avoid going further down the road of the circus act, companies like English National Ballet don’t need to stop endorsing the pyrotechnical dancer, but start embracing those with other talents too.